Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Da xiang xi di er zuo

A masterpiece of the highest order, the film is in the canon of cinema what Raskolnikov is in the canon of literature. A film that can be made only as a one-off: either the genius fades or dies or abandons the ambition. Like Gogol. Like Bo Hu, who committed suicide soon after making the film. And the world he paints in his film, very much like Plemya, is a desolate one, where everything is shit. The difference with Plemya being that the film also says, maybe desperately, that one has to look for something else, that there must be something else.

Da xiang xi di er zuo (int'l title: An Elephant Sitting Still) is about an elephant one never sees. Very few will bet on him, very few will leave their mundane chores to go to a godforsaken place to go and meet him. It is not that the others are happy, it is not that the others are doing something meaningful. It is just that everyone's tired, and they fail to see the charm, the humour, the silver lining that the elephant presents. They fail to see that the world may yet present some degree of hope if the elephant is sitting still all by himself. They fail to smile, they fail to laugh. They will never even listen to him bellowing, for they have given up on him without even having known him or about him. For them, there is no something else. There is this and this and then that, and then this and this and then that that. Life for them is a cycle, but not a cycle which liberates you, making you take everything as a drama and letting you indulge in the colossal joke of a still, alive elephant: no, a cycle, which begins with this and ends with that, the two ends of routine that they know too well, never straying once out of it. They are too messed up to stray. They are in fact like the domesticated elephants, who do remain quite still, chained early in their childhoods, so they do sit still, and yet that's not charming, for they were chained, they are not wild elephants sitting still. Is the one in Manzhouli, the one who's sitting still, a wild one or a domesticated one? Is Wang Jin right, saying that there's nothing else, or is Wei Bu right, hoping against all experience that there is, that a wild one does exist in Manzhouli? Will we ever know? From our own experience, we will if we go and search one, but only incommunicably. But if we don't find one, then what?

One will probably never know why Bo Hu committed suicide, but do not be misled into thinking of the film as a despairing realistic piece because of that. The film's beauty lies in Wei Bu's insistence and Wang Jin's implicit flickeringly alive innocence, when he does accept Wei Bu's offer to go and meet the elephant. If ever there was a film singing the most articulate song about the human condition, here is one, and I doubt if ever there will be another. It helps matters even more when one witnesses supremely virtuous cinematography: a cinematography which though so talented yet slips into consciousness, making one steep into the film's gloom. Very different from the much celebrated cinematography of a recent Polish hit Zimna wojna (Cold War), where the camera is excellent, yet is guilty of celebrating itself rather than slipping in the shadow of the film's substance. But, then, that is the difference: An Elephant Sitting Still is all substance, little style, whereas Cold War is mostly style, little substance. And it is probably this lingering bitterness that led Bo Hu to make this film: this world, where excellence is cast out and where it's demanded that films be shortened to the usual length of 2 hours or less. Bo Hu did not, and has made an immortal name for himself in the history of cinema for centuries.

A final word about the excellent performances in the film, most particularly by Yu Zhang playing Yu Cheng. It is difficult to play a restrained violent person, or rather a person whose profession is violence but who is otherwise not violent. A bit like a wild elephant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

27 Down (1974) / Gişe Memuru (2010)

The childhood is short—and golden. Thereafter, life is a spiral going downwards, punctuated by love affairs that beckon the man to shake off cowardliness and paternal domination, to shake off one's own lethargy, but finally unable to be consummated. Everything—and everyone—dominates, and the man who is judged to not have grown up is smothered. Each step is violence, and the artist, the dreamer prefers to rather betake himself in the world enclosed by constant motion: that of a swaying berth in constantly shunting trains, that of a still toll booth among a swirl of traffic of license-bearing grown-ups.

While the beautifully shot, black-and-white 27 Down is a finer and heavier film dealing with the story of many if not most men, of their dealing with their fathers and this patriarchal world, Gişe Memuru (int'l title: Toll Booth) is a slightly lighter affair, with occasional brilliant bursts of humour, though winding up with same tragic consequences. The stories are the same, it is the setting that differs. One is set in a rainy Bombay, among the grime of trains and their busybodiness; the other is set in perspiringly sunlit Turkey—a bit too much sunlit when the sunflowers decide to accompany the sun—among content automobile drivers and their uncouth inquisitiveness. Behind both looms the figure of the Father, demanding more than his pound of the flesh from the obedient good-for-nothing son, whom they need to "settle" in life. The chain of familial relationship lies heavy on the sons, the protagonists: when they, in spite of their flinching selves, even catch hold of a corner of the floating cloud for themselves, the Father's death will still intervene, the expiring, ascending soul making a last-ditch successful effort to forever shatter the flimsy confidence of the young men. And the world goes on: almost brutal, not mere insensitive, to the crushed spirits. For those who may make merry, the world is ready to join in; for those who may not, each one lives with enough demons of their own to want more of the others'.

It is easy to succumb, for there is an object: satisfaction of your ego. It is difficult to fight, for the object seems absent: the world seems a ludicrous affair.

Monday, June 18, 2018


There are films, and very few of them, that take you through an expanse of not only space but time and history, of people's unchanging desires, frustrations, hopes and disillusionments across changing eras, where hair styles change, the choice of music changes, the furniture changes, roads are dug up and relaid and re-dug up, and older businesses go obsolete while newer replace them. Through this never-ending cycle, people evolve but also remain the same at their core, and so does a society, so does a nation. Jia Zhangke's film Zhantai (in'tl title: Platform) matches in scope and surpasses in subtlety Zhang Yimou's To Live when it comes to a study of modern China's history. At the same time, it is a study of youth, a study that persists into their middle-aged years, unlike Hsiao-hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei. And hence, it is a more remarkable film, difficult to make, indicating Zhangke's complete mastery over his subject matter: China and the Chinese. By extension, people.

The beauty of Zhangke's film is in its details, in its precise portrayal of life in northern China. An exquisite camerawork and brilliant, placid camera angles enhance the effect to leave lasting impressions on the viewer, especially on someone who has known China. A still position for the camera, as action happens in its purview, brings a detached style to the film, and yet long shots intersperse to give it the effect of a canvas, not mere documentary. Without it being explicit, to an observant viewer, it is evident that material comforts increase as the linear narrative goes forward, and yet people seem trapped in their suppressed hopes, worn-out habits, and nothing and nowhere to look forward to. For those who have chosen to be on the move in the wide open world, they have had to sacrifice their homes; and for those who have chosen to remain, hopes are pinned on others. Disappointment and adjustment to complacent contentment are often the lot of both. While circumstances shape people's lives, Zhangke achieves the difficult feat of not focussing blame on some ideology or some historical incident in particular: such a story could have happened in any land, regardless of its political system and ideology, whenever youth drift and don't have always much to look forward to.

A special word for actor Jing Dong Liang, who plays the role of dandy-ish Chang Jun exceptionally well.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a film that resonated in the United States as corporate cultures battled with the personal sense of individual freedom, before a growing tech, and resulting start-up, culture has made the film seemingly less relevant today. It would be a mistake though to write off that relevance: while man seems to grow towards freedom, at the same time technology can also give a greater degree of control over individual lives and tastes to corporations and states. It is hence an appropriate time to revisit the film: and not just for what all the long-winded film tackles, but also because it is a fine, fine film, with sterling performances by all of its cast, including Jennifer Jones, who otherwise did not get many roles suited to her personality in her career. While Lee J. Cobb is more remembered for 12 Angry Men, he is even more admirable in this film, though his role is a small one here (but an important one).

The film, broadly speaking, is about suited men: executives. Fredric March plays Ralph Hopkins, the very image of a go-getter big businessman. But March plays a finely nuanced character: he is not all good or all bad, not white or black, and he sometimes has self-pity, not something that one expects in go-getter type of characters when presented on screen. Gregory Peck plays Tom, a man with a conscience and some weight on it as well, a man who was, and is still, honest, but whose character has faced the challenge of being warped by humanity's madness: war, and profit-driven dehumanisation of society. Women, on the other hand, represent non-suited roles: they are not in suits, but they are there to help, love or inspire men. This is typical of Hollywood films in general, even more particularly of the mid-twentieth century, but then it was also the life that was prevalent in the United States in the middle decades of the last century. The film reflects what it sees: and the women's being in non-suited roles brings in its own complications of dependence and insecurity. The supposedly public thus intersects with the personal, and not only adults but also innocent children are ensnared and enmeshed within.

The film is made with great attention and lovingness, one could say: it crosses the usual length of the American films of that era, and it does not shirk from delving deep into the past and into side-stories, just so that a more complete psychological portrait of its characters can emerge. As I said earlier, the cast is very well chosen and does a great job: even Ann Harding, playing Mrs. Hopkins, a very minor role, is impressive, as is Joseph Sweeney, playing an aggressive old man, also probably afflicted by greed. Sweeney's character hints at the larger corruption at hand: greed drives not just big corporations, but even old and poor men of the age. Peck himself, in the lead role, does not disappoint: he plays his stolid Atticus figure, something that seems to come to him naturally. Jennifer Jones, playing not a completely angelic wife, which used to be a staple of Hollywood, is the wise choice for such a role, and the ending scenes of the film are when she shines at her brightest.

A lovely film, its relevance may again grow as the world moves into technology-enabled control and pretense of freedom.